Wednesday, February 21, 2024

‘Trust the people driving the discussion’: Officials indicate school safety conversations will continue mostly in private

New Hanover County manager Chris Coudriet gave an update Monday on the process of investing in school safety improvements. (Port City Daily/New Hanover County)

WILMINGTON –– New Hanover County manager Chris Coudriet shed more light Monday on discussions in a closed-door meeting Friday with senior staff, law enforcement leaders and school system representatives in response to an Aug. 30 shooting at New Hanover High. He asked the public to have trust as officials continue identifying possibly millions of dollars worth of security investments in schools.

The 31 participants, plus two commissioners who sat in to listen, joined in the government center to consider ways to prevent further violence on school grounds. The county has a $350-million pot of money from the sale of the once county-owned New Hanover Regional Medical Center it plans to access for investments.

RELATED: New Hanover County leaders discuss school safety investments in private meeting

It’s still unknown how much money the county will employ from the hospital profit for this purpose. Coudriet has instructed participants in conversations to set financials aside while brainstorming solutions.

During his presentation to the board of commissioners Monday, Coudriet indicated that most conversations on the topic of security will not happen as publicly as they did on Sept. 3, when commissioners accepted the initial motion to open up millions to violence prevention and safety efforts. The county manager expressed he wants to create judgment-free zones for community members with lived experiences to offer input and also needs to be careful to not give away any “playbook,” such as a facility security audit, to people looking to inflict harm.

“We’re going to have to be comfortable, perhaps, not saying what it is that we’re doing differently. There’s gonna have to be an element of trust,” Coudriet said. “Trust in the people driving the discussion. Not asking you to trust a county manager or a finance officer or anyone else. Trust the people who are framing and guiding these discussions.”

He said those conversational leads include principals, teachers and nonprofits.

Friday’s conversation, which took place nearly three weeks after the shooting at New Hanover High, was specific to heightening safety on school campuses. It included four principals, the teacher of the year and a PTA parent. Coudriet said a low-key community engagement event also was held Thursday evening.

“While the conversation was specific to schools that day, no one is framing this as a school safety problem in and of itself,” Coudriet clarified. “What happened three weeks ago today at New Hanover High School was a symptom of a larger community problem.”

Coudriet forewarned he didn’t believe the process was far along enough for a formal presentation, yet he gave a roughly 15-minute update concerning the group’s findings.

Participants left the meeting with three “hardscape” improvements and three longer-term “people-centric” priorities.

“I feel good about where we are,” Coudriet said. “We know a lot more today than we did three weeks ago today. There are some things that we can begin to work on immediately.”

At the top of the to-do list is a review of the school system’s safety audits, which the district has conducted several of in the past, to identify possible funding needs. Coudriet said some of the first investments are likely to originate from those audits.

“We’ve done a lot of studying. That’s why nobody’s suggesting that we go back and start over on any of these things,” Coudriet said. “Let’s take what we know and move forward. With the things that don’t work, set those aside.”

The county manager said he has begun reviewing the facilities audit. Though he said he did not consider it a public document, he planned to disperse copies to the commissioners.

Secondly, among the hardscape improvements, Coudriet said stakeholders identified a need to monitor pending threats to the school system. He suggested taking action based on what is seen on social media, where conflicts tend to brew. He referenced building a “system” for tracking activity.

“There were individuals who knew that something was going to happen on that Monday morning. Not that [they knew] it was going to rise to the level of someone being shot, but in fact, there was, on social media, chatter,” Coudriet said.

The mother of the alleged shooter, a 15-year-old, said in an interview her husband went to the high school the morning of the shooting to check on their child after learning of threatening social media messages. Days prior, she said she spoke with NHCS staff about thwarting physical attacks on her son. During the Sept. 3 public meeting among top-ranking officials, the superintendent seemingly disputed the mother’s narrative when he denied bullying had been verified in the incident.

Commissioner Jonathan Barfield Jr. asserted during Monday’s meeting his belief that the parents reached out for help and were rebuffed.

“It’s important that we’re always intentionally listening and not allowing intentional bias or implicit bias to guide our direction,” he said.

Lastly, Coudriet said participants identified a need for principals and administrators to improve real-time communication with parents and others in the midst of an event. He added the way facilities are built poses “structural communication challenges,” such as poor Wi-Fi or cell service compared to other campuses due to the infrastructure.

Among the people-centric priorities, the county is planning to improve the way families are continuously connected to resources. He said their goal is to unify support services and strengthen their focus on case management.

In the next several weeks, he said the county will engage service providers in private talks.

A second human focus is to connect children and families with mental health services. Already, students can find a mental health provider on campus. Through $3 million from the American Rescue Plan Act, the county is positioning mental health counselors in each public school.

“We can do a better job at continuing that support when they leave school, but we have not put the attention on the family unit, as a whole, to ensure parents, in particular, have access to the resources that they need to help deal with their own family trauma and certainly those of their children,” Coudriet said.

Thirdly, among the people-centric priorities, he said participants highlighted a desire to engage diverse groups of faculty, students, families and service providers when collecting feedback.

Commissioner Barfield said it was “glaring” to him that he was one of only two people of color at the table during the initial Sept. 3 meeting on school safety.

“We’ve got to be intentional about making sure that there’s true representation of all ethnic groups and backgrounds as we have these kind of conversations in our community,” Barfield said.

Coudriet said talks with nonprofit leaders are ongoing. He explained last week’s organized community meeting was kept under wraps to protect participants from judgment or “cameras in their face.”

“We did not put light on that and I’m not going to really report out because we want to make sure that we’re creating the right space for people to come forward and tell their lived experience,” Coudriet said.

Commissioner Julia Olson-Boseman said she was encouraged to see the different types of people in attendance at Friday’s meeting. She said she understood they couldn’t talk about all the safety issues publicly.

“A lot of the specifics, we can’t talk about,” she said. “And I’m a mother with a child in . . . middle school, and I’d rather it not be, as a parent, talking about how we’re going to keep our children safe.”

Below is the list of active participants at Friday’s meeting:

New Hanover County:

  • County Manager Chris Coudriet 
  • Assistant county manager Tufanna Bradley
  • Assistant county manager Sheryl Kelly
  • Chief communications officer Jessica Loeper
  • Chief diversity and equity officer Linda Thompson
  • Diversity and equity specialist Travis Corpening
  • Budget officer Michelle Daniels
  • Chief finance officer Lisa Wurtzbacher
  • Facilities manager Sara Warmuth
  • Community justice services director Chris Preston
  • Health and human services director Donna Fayko
  • Mental health therapist Wayne Anderson
  • Mental health therapist Yolanda Blount-Wood

City of Wilmington:

  • City Manager ​​Tony Caudle 
  • Community development and housing planner Suzanne Rogers 
  • Community services director Amy Beatty 

Law enforcement/judicial:

  • New Hanover County Sheriff Ed McMahon 
  • New Hanover County chief deputy Ken Sarvis 
  • Wilmington Police Chief Donny Williams 
  • Assistant Wilmington Police Chief David Oyler
  • Chief District Court Judge Jay Corpening 

New Hanover County Schools:

  • Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust 
  • New Hanover High principal Philip Sutton
  • Williston Middle principal Christopher Madden 
  • Snipes Academy principal Rachel Manning 
  • Rachel Freeman School of Engineering principal Dionne Sturdivant
  • Teacher of the year Abbey Nobles
  • Chief communications officer Josh Smith
  • PTA president Darlene Powell

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Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands is a journalist covering New Hanover County and education. Before Port City Daily, she reported for the award-winning State Port Pilot in Southport. She graduated from UNC Charlotte and wrote for several Charlotte publications while there. When not writing, Williams is most likely in the gym, reading or spending time with her Golden Pyrenees. Reach her at or on Twitter @alexsands_

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